Photo: J. Scott Applewhite (AP)
As all eyes focus on Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s congressional hearings today regarding the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, one thing is very clear: The terrorist group Al Qaeda is still very much alive, and business is still booming.”Concerns about terrorism and instability in North Africa are not new. Indeed they have been a top priority for our entire national security team,” said Clinton in her opening statement. “But after Benghazi, we accelerated a diplomatic campaign to increase pressure on al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other terrorist groups across the region.”
With the killing of Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011, along with U.S. military excursions into Afghanistan and Iraq, it was assumed that Al Qaeda was down for the count. As recent events in North Africa have shown that is certainly not the case. Instead of being broken, the group’s affiliates have still carried out successful attacks and are now carving out their own country in Mali.
That’s not surprising if you look at Al Qaeda’s long-term objectives.
The attacks of 9/11 were not an Al Qaeda finale, but actually the opener in a long-term strategy against the United States. With the memory of the fight against the Soviet Union (and that country’s demise) always with them, they had the goal of forcing the U.S. into a war of attrition across many Islamic countries in an effort to undermine the U.S. economy.
Their prediction was the eventual economic collapse of the U.S. by 2020, from the strain of multiple engagements. If we look at the 1-0 record vs. Moscow, their confidence is not surprising.
It’s important to realise, however, that the Al Qaeda “core” that Osama bin Laden established is not a centralized organisation. In fact, the main group based in Pakistan has not had a major attack in many years. Playing off the success of the Al Qaeda name, many groups have emerged with similar names that retain some or little ties to the core group. These offshoots have names such as Al-Qaeda in Iraq, or Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
Al Qaeda has already achieved the first two of its five strategic stages — provoking the United States into invading a Muslim country, and inciting resistance within by the local populace. Now we are seeing them apparently hit stage three: expansion of the conflict to neighbouring countries in an effort to bog down the U.S. and its strategic allies in a war of attrition.
The Arab Spring brought major change to Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, and Libya. But veteran CIA analyst Michael Scheuer, the former head of the bin Laden unit, believes that “all of this amounts to an enormous strategic step forward for al-Qaeda.” They’ve invested virtually nothing into these conflicts, but may possibly see a hand in future governance.
In Libya, there was a major Al Qaeda attack on the U.S. Embassy that took the life of the ambassador and three other Americans. According to the New York Times, Al Qaeda fighters in Syria are “one of the most effective forces fighting against President Bashar al-Assad.” And more recently, there was a deadly attack in Algeria carried out by a group also affiliated with Al Qaeda.
Which brings us to Mali. After the democratic government was overthrown by the military, insurgents saw an opening in the north. Two groups, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al Dine, partnered to defeat government forces and effectively created their own state governed by sharia law in the northern two-thirds portion of the country.
“Al-Qaeda never owned Afghanistan,” said former United Nations diplomat Robert Fowler, a Canadian kidnapped and held for 130 days by al-Qaida’s local chapter, whose fighters now control the main cities in the north. “They do own northern Mali.”
As the insurgency grew, France, the former colonial power in Mali, intervened. French President François Hollande said, “I have decided that France will respond, alongside our African partners, to the request from the Malian authorities.”
They have vowed to stay until the conflict is resolved, but it’s not going to be easy. As veteran defence reporter Patrick Cockburn of The Independent has pointed out, the vastness of the country means that “the central government, even with French air support, will have difficulty in eliminating the Islamists.”
But the French are not alone. The U.S. is providing intelligence, logistics, and aircraft support, although no American combat troops have been committed to the fight. It certainly remains an option, considering that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called action against insurgents in Mali a “necessary struggle.”
“We cannot permit northern Mali to become a safe haven,” Clinton said in Washington today. Ex-U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair agrees, telling Sky News, “If you don’t intervene and you let these countries become terrorist states they will threaten the rest of the world.”
And they certainly have a point: Al Qaeda used the safe haven of Afghanistan to launch its most successful attack on 9/11. But Michael Scheuer sees intervention into the Islamic world as playing right into their hands.
“How tragic that in the war being waged against the United States by al-Qaeda and its allies precisely because of Washington’s relentless intervention in the Islamic world,” wrote Scheuer shortly after the Arab Spring swept the Middle East, “the U.S. government will now be forced to intervene even more – or sit on the sidelines and watch al-Qaeda build or expand bases from which to threaten U.S. security.”
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